From flexible working to digital ID: Global Government Forum’s top news stories of 2022

By on 27/12/2022 | Updated on 27/12/2022
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What you’ve been reading over the last 12 months

This year saw global turmoil as the economic fallout of COVID-19 took hold and Europe witnessed the first war on its soil since 1945. For public servants, 2022 was dominated by debates around the future of work, professional fulfilment and pay – issues which have been exacerbated by rising inflation and the cost of living crisis. Government departments struggled to balance efficiency savings with their ambitions to deliver innovative public services, while policy frameworks around digital identity proliferated as governments sought to apply lessons from the pandemic.

Here are some of Global Government Forum’s most popular stories from the last 12 months, on the topics above and more, with links to the full stories at the end of each section. Thanks to you all for reading. The GGF team hope to provide you with more great insight in 2023.

Governments around the world grapple with flexible working

As the COVID-19 pandemic subsided, Canadian public servants who had been working from home faced pressure to return to shared workspaces, prompting backlash. Public service unions criticised what they saw as the federal government’s incoherent advice around hybrid work, while federal workers took to Reddit to debate and even mock official guidance, including the example of a Health Canada manager who urged public servants to return to their desks because they said it would help keep a nearby outlet of global sandwich chain Subway in business. While memes and opinion circulated online, Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, pointed to studies showing that 60% of public servants preferred remote work. Only 25% said they preferred a hybrid work model, while just 10% favoured a full time return to the office.

Meanwhile, responding to pleas from business leaders for officials to be brought back into offices, president of Canada’s Treasury Board Mona Frontier came to their defence. Regardless of whether public servants had worked remotely or in offices, they had “never stopped working and… delivered under extremely difficult circumstances when Canadians needed them most”, she said, adding that the public service would “[embrace] this opportunity to modernise our way of working”.

In the UK, tensions grew between civil service unions and Whitehall ministers over the future of work. This came to a head over suggestions that officials who worked from home could be more likely to lose their jobs. As departments prepared to make 20% cuts to their headcounts, then-minister for efficiency Jacob Rees-Mogg issued a veiled warning to officials, saying that they would have to choose wisely whether to be in the office “when an organisation is reducing numbers”. Rees-Mogg led both the cuts plan and government’s efforts to get civil servants back into offices. Though he urged cabinet ministers to increase their staff’s presence, some argued that this reduced workforce management to “measuring bodies behind desks” rather than focusing on efficiency.

US president Joe Biden set out his administration’s plan for a return to workplaces in March, which dovetailed with the federal government’s goal of increasing access to in-person public services managed by the Social Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and others. Ahead of his State of the Union speech, Biden wrote a letter thanking federal employees for their commitment to combatting the pandemic. “Your capabilities and dedication are what make the federal government strong and ensure we deliver the basic needs for everyday Americans,” he said.

Read more
Canadian government becoming hybrid as minister challenges back-to-office call
Canada’s hybrid work plan stokes discontent among public servants
UK minister hints work-from-home civil servants could face job cuts
More US federal officials to return to the office as in-person services return

Digital ID comes to the fore

In February, eight countries including Australia, Canada, Finland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom set out a number of high-level principles for the development of mutually recognised and interoperable digital ID systems and infrastructure. The Digital Government Exchange (DGX) Digital Identity Working Group (DIWG) said that the aim of reaching “a common set of definitions and universal taxonomy for digital identity” was to enhance trade agreements and “facilitate economic recovery from COVID-19 [by] opening domestic and international borders”. It added that “when applied this enables… more efficient government interactions, increased support for businesses operating across borders and simple, streamlined experiences for people travelling internationally”.

One DIWG member, Canada, later announced that it was preparing a public consultation on a framework for digital identity. Digital ID formed a key pillar of the country’s Digital Ambition 2022, which was launched in August to replace the government’s Digital Operations Strategic Plan: 2021-2024.

Read more
Eight countries set out principles for the future of digital ID
Canada’s federal government to launch public consultation on digital ID
Digital ID – what is it, why is it needed, and how are governments developing it

US government spending plans

Budgets for US federal agencies swelled in March as Biden signed a US$1.5 trillion spending bill, averting a partial government shutdown. The omnibus funding bill raised domestic agency budgets by 6.7%, while defence saw a 6% boost. The package overall included US$13.6bn in emergency aid to Ukraine and NATO allies. Agencies with the largest increases included the Transportation Department, which received a 17% increase to help implement the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Internal Revenue Service meanwhile saw its largest funding boost in more than 20 years. It said that, faced with an enormous backlog of tax returns, it would use the money to hire 10,000 new employees.

Agencies weren’t the only beneficiaries of the Biden administration’s spending drive. In January, the president signed an executive order finalising a pledge to raise federal civilian employee pay by an average of 2.7% in 2022. The raise surpassed the 1% boost feds received in 2021, though came up short against the biggest pay increase in a decade of 3.1% received in 2020. The National Treasury Employees Union responded, saying that it would continue to pressure government to narrow the gap between federal and private sector salaries in 2023.

In September, Biden confirmed that US federal government officials would receive an average 4.6% pay rise in 2023 to help tackle “growing recruitment and retention challenges”. It is the largest federal pay rise in 20 years.

Read more
US federal agencies get 6.7% budget increase in $1.5 trillion spending bill
Biden confirms 4.6% federal pay rise
Biden finalises 2.7% pay rise for federal employees

UK civil service digital skills in the spotlight

Global Government Forum’s Digital Leaders Study involved interviews with seven national digital leaders tasked with driving transformation at the centre of government. It revealed that many departmental leaders and ministers lacked the necessary understanding and commitment to deliver change. The study found that interviewees felt very few senior public officials were “genuine champions of digital transformation”. They also highlighted that civil service recruitment and performance management processes often weed out people with the skills and behaviours required to lead such projects. Included in the findings was the tendency for public service careers to progress on the basis of policy skills rather than technical expertise. The result of this, according to one interviewee, is that senior digital leaders end up working for departmental leaders who are “reflexively liability-conscious and risk-averse” and so become “the wrong cohort to try to get to lead such an operation”.

In its exclusive UK Civil Service Digital Skills Report, meanwhile, Global Government Forum found that officials primarily blamed legacy technology, budget constraints and a lack of training for impeding transformation of government services. In a survey supported by Google Cloud that drew responses from 1,006 officials, around 50% named defunct legacy technology as the biggest block to progress in this area, while the other half attributed this to budget constraints or lack of funding. The report found that these factors held across different groups of respondents in the survey, from those working in the senior civil service, to members of the digital, data and technology and IT professions, to those engaged in digital transformation projects. A sizeable proportion of civil servants (78%) said they would like to receive more digital skills training. Almost a fifth (19%) said they had not received any internal or external training within the last two years.

Read more
Top public officials ‘lack understanding to drive digital transformation’
UK officials highlight barriers to digital transformation in government
Exclusive insight into how UK civil servants rate their digital skills

An uncertain year lies ahead for many public servants

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak – the third prime minister of the year – ditched plans brought in under Boris Johnson to cut 91,000 civil service jobs. However, headcount reductions still loom in 2023. In an ongoing bid to ensure value for money for the British taxpayer, government departments may yet have to sacrifice posts to make efficiency savings. In a message to civil servants in November, Sunak said that though he wanted to ensure “every taxpayer pound goes as far as it possibly can” he did not think “top-down targets for civil service headcount reductions” was the right approach. Going forward, he, along with UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to let departments make cost-saving decisions independently.

Back in April, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s finance minister, announced a strategic policy review in the 2022 Canadian federal Budget to ensure spending matched government’s priorities. The review aligned with plans to rein in public spending after what Freeland called “extraordinary COVID support” for the Canadian economy. In a speech before parliament, she confirmed that the government would reduce the public spending deficit while cutting the national debt as a proportion of GDP every year of the fiscal forecast period to 2026-27. Acknowledging the role Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had played in the decision, Freeland accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “turn[ing] his guns on the unprecedented era of prosperity that the world’s democracies had worked so diligently to build over more than 76 years”.

Ex-US president Donald Trump, who in November announced that he would again run for president in 2024, said earlier this year that if re-elected, he would make “every executive-branch employee fireable by the president” and resurrect Schedule F, one of his executive orders that president Biden rescinded after taking office. Trump’s threat to dismiss executive-branch employees at will has historical precedent, having been a power available to presidents of the past. However, the law granting them this ability was changed in 1883 under the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which aimed to prevent presidents from firing their opponents and only hiring those who supported them.

Read more
Rishi Sunak halts plan for 91,000 UK civil service job cuts
Canadian federal Budget announces policy review amid spending restraint
Trump threatens to fire executive-branch employees if re-elected in 2024

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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